SOMERVILLE — Retirement should be the last thing on Tanya Donelly’s mind, and it sort of is, but that’s not the impression you’d get from her latest project. She had her tongue firmly in cheek when she named it “The Swan Song Series,” a collection of EPs on which Donelly has collaborated with various musicians and authors and explored an impressive range that wasn’t always captured on her previous albums.
Self-released and available only in a digital format, the idea for it was borne out of an unsettling realization.
“I had started to feel like I had somehow retired myself without really knowing it and hadn’t even thrown myself a party,” Donelly says recently at Q Division Studios, where she often records. “It’s not that I will never play live again or never be involved in music again, because I will always do that.”
“It’s not about my age,” adds Donelly, who’s 47. “It’s about how I function. [Making music] is something I have to be very premeditative about. The time between my recordings just extended exponentially. Then I started to feel like I could easily never record again and that would be that. It would be done.”
Even if she never makes another proper album, Donelly is already a towering figure in alternative rock. She is an important fixture in Boston’s music scene whose work with three different bands had an international reach that resonates to this day. Raised in Newport, R.I., she was a founding member of Throwing Muses in the early 1980s (alongside her stepsister, Kristin Hersh), followed by the Breeders and then Belly, who had a No. 1 modern-rock hit with 1993’s “Feed the Tree.”
‘I had started to feel like I had somehow retired myself without really knowing it and hadn’t even thrown myself a party.’
In recent years, though, life had taken its natural course. Donelly, who lives in Arlington, began focusing on her family, including her two daughters and her husband, Dean Fisher, who played bass in the Juliana Hatfield Three.
In August, Donelly was feeling the familiar magnetic pull to make music again. She stepped back in the spotlight with new songs, and this week she’ll reunite with Throwing Muses for a pair of hometown shows at the Sinclair in Cambridge. Both concerts, on Friday and Monday, are sold out and will feature Donelly opening the shows solo and then performing six or seven songs with the band toward the end.
Donelly says she’s on good terms with the band, whose lineup she left in the early ’90s to play with the Breeders, and the Sinclair shows are her first with Hersh and company in more than a decade.
“I’m not rehearsing with them beforehand. We’ll do that at sound check. I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Donelly says, shrugging her shoulders and letting out a giggle that suggests it could go completely awry.
“It’s great,” she says of her relationship with her old bandmates. “First of all, the muscle memory involved when it comes to playing those songs is unlike anything else. I mean, we’ve known each other since we were 5. That’s a very comfortable group of people.”
For this interview at Q Division, perched on a sofa and sipping tea, Donelly still very much looks the part of the rocker but one who is at peace with how life has turned out. Her laugh is robust and infectious. Reading glasses rest on her head. When she leaves the interview, she gets into a minivan with an Obama/Biden bumper sticker on the back window. This is who she is now, and you don’t detect she has any regrets.
She seems at ease talking about being a musician with a storied past and her roles as a mother and wife. Her daughters (Gracie is 14, Harriet is 7) are aware of her previous bands and like to look at old videos of Mom, many of which are on proud display on Donelly’s website, www.tanyadonelly.com. Fisher is not just her partner; he’s her closest musical ally, too.
“This is going to sound like we live in some utopian hippie-dippie household, which is not the case, but we just play and sing together all the time. My daughter, the seven-year-old one, plays djembe [a drum], and Gracie plays ukulele and piano. We’re like the Cowsills! It’s a Rhode Island thing.”
“More than any other songwriter I’ve ever played with, she really goes through cycles,” says Fisher, who has been married to Donelly since 1996. “Part of her way is to live her life and not even think about [music], and then it all comes out at once. This new project is her coming full circle and showing everything she can do at this point.”
In a sense, Donelly has become a muse in her own right. For the ongoing “Swan Song Series,” she has enlisted a range of friends from different backgrounds, from writers (Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill) to musicians, many of whom have been seminal voices themselves in Boston’s music scene, such as Bill Janovitz (Buffalo Tom), Chris Ewen (Future Bible Heroes), and Hilken Mancini (Fuzzy). Naomi Yang (Damon & Naomi, Galaxie 500) directed the haunting video for “Mass Ave.”
The collaborations have worked a number of ways, but often they involve Donelly asking her guests to send some lyrics or concepts, which she then finesses and shapes into a song that speaks to her experience. She has relished the exchange of ideas but had been hung up on the business side of things.
“There was a piece of me that felt like putting out new music without serving it — I’m not from that school,” she says. “I’m from the school that says once the song is written and recorded and out there, that’s just step one. And then there are several more steps after that point. That’s an untenable sort of lifestyle for me right now.”
Instead, the project plays up Donelly’s strengths as a songwriter and interpretive singer of vast range. The scope of material over the first four volumes has been astonishing, from the rhythmic folk-pop of “Mass Ave” to the ukulele-led tenderness of “Miranda (Pacifically)” to the synth-pop seduction of “Flying at Night,” which she co-wrote with Ewen.
The fifth volume in the series, Donelly hopes, is coming later this month and will feature collaborations with Gail Greenwood, her former bandmate in Belly; Paul Harding (author of “Tinkers”); and Claudia Gonson and Sam Davol, both of the Magnetic Fields.
Janovitz is close to Donelly, and over the years they’ve been kindred spirits and frequent collaborators.
“I’ve seen her with strangers and fans, and she has this warmth and generosity that extend to everybody,” Janovitz says. “She’s highly regarded, certainly among other musicians. I brought her into the fold of Hot Stove Cool Music [the annual benefit concert at which Donelly often performs], and they won’t let her go. She’s everybody’s sweetheart because she is such a great person and everyone is floored when she starts singing.”
Donelly tends to have that effect on people, from devoted fans who engage with her directly through social media to younger acts that grew up on a diet of the bands she helped put on the map.
“It was pretty amazing to chat with Tanya backstage at the Paradise and watch the Breeders from the wings with her,” says Sadie Dupuis, lead singer of Speedy Ortiz, a rising indie-rock band out of Western Massachusetts that opened that show back in December. “I was starstruck, and she was completely nice and down-to-earth and came up and introduced herself. Amazingly cool person.”